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Posts Tagged ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’

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Ritz Theatre and Museum in Jacksonville, Florida

Jacksonville, Florida was once known as “The Harlem of the South” referring to the African-American renaissance going on in Harlem, New York mostly in the 1920s and 30s. A time of intellectual, social, and artistic explosion.

That creative expression was also experienced on a smaller level in the LaVilla area in what’s now part of downtown Jacksonville. There were clubs, restaurants, and movie theaters for blacks in the “separate but equal” era of racial segregation.  The Ritz Theatre and Museum in the above photo was built in 1999 on the original site of the Ritz movie theater. (The sign is part of the original building.)  A young Ray Charles performed there and author Nora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) worked around the corner at the Clara White Mission while living with an uncle in the area.

The Ritz Theatre was one of the stops on what was known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” where black entertainers traveled between places like the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Fox Theatre in Detroit, and Royal Theatre in Chicago. Dates vary, but that period appears to have lasted from the early 1900s though the early 1960s.

There were a couple of movie theaters in the LaVilla area including The Strand Theatre which was built as a vaudeville theater in 1915 and became an African American theatre showing movies. (To read more of the movie history visit The Lost Theatres of LaVilla.)

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The Stand Theatre

According to the book Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking by Barbera Tepa Lupack in 1914 there were only 238 theaters in the United States that catered to exclusively black patrons (compared to “32,000 white houses”). Most of those theaters catering to blacks showed traditional Hollywood movies. But after D.W. Griffth’s Birth of a Nation (a movie said to give rise to an almost dead KKK movement) there was a push to make what was known as race films or race movies.

John Noble and Rex Webster made The Birth of a Race as a direct response to The Birth of a Nation (1915). The film premiered in 1918 at Chicago’s Blackstone Theater. It was nowhere as widely seen (or praised) as Birth of a Nation—nor as technically proficient. But it was a response to make films that did not show a stereotypical view of blacks. One that resonates today. And one that was addressed in Robert Townsend’s 1987 movie Hollywood Shuffle. (A film I’ll write about later this month since it influenced a young Quentin Tarantino.)

Producer, writer, director Oscar Micheaux (The ExileHarlem After Midnight) is considered the first successful African-American feature filmmaker and I like to point out that his first film (The Homesteader) based on his novel was shot in Gregory, South Dakota and…wait for it—Sioux City, Iowa.

Few of the race films in their entirety survive to this day. But I was able to see one this weekend in Gainesville, Florida. The Cade Museum showed all six reels of The Flying Ace (1926) which was billed on the original poster as featuring an “ALL ALL-COLORED CAST.”

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The film was written and directed by Richard E. Norman. I wonder if he ever crossed paths with Micheaux. Before Norman moved to Florida he lived in Iowa (I swear I don’t make this stuff up) and had a company called Capital City Film Manufacturing Company of Des Moines, Iowa. One of his business cards stated, “Director and Photographer of Successful Photoplays Featuring Home Talent, Des Moines, Iowa.”

Apparently he did advertising, industrial films, and recorded special events throughout the Midwest. He did well enough that he had his own laboratory in Des Moines to develop his film. He also was resourceful enough to make short films with local talent in various cities and then show the films at a local theater and make a lion share of the 60/40 spilt with the movie theater.

But he moved to Jacksonville, Florida and opened Norman Studios and eventually began using his talent to make race films. He also happened to be white. At the screening Sunday his grandson was on hand to introduce the screening of The Flying Ace. 

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Live music accompanied the screening of The Flying Ace.

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The buildings of Norman Studios survive to this day and a non-profit organization has been set-up to preserve its history. If you look at the map below you’ll see that Norman Studios was located less than five miles from where the Ritz Theatre now stands.

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Google Earth screen capture

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And because all things are connected in Quentin Tarantino’s Tarantinoverse parts of The Flying Ace were shot in Mayport just outside of Jacksonville. The Navel Station Mayport is located there and if you’ve read Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff you may remember that Wolfe starts out discussing Navy life in Mayport/Jacksonville and begins with a gruesome plane crash of Navy jet in the swamp area around Mayport. (See the top right area of the above map.) Here are the first few paragraphs of The Right Stuff:

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The wives of the young jet pilots were calling each other to see if they’d heard what had happened “out there” until an officer would arrive at one of the homes and begin with “I’m sorry….” I don’t recall that part being in the 1983 film version The Right Stuff. 

But perhaps it will be touched on in the Tv mini-series of The Right Stuff that is being set-up at Universal Studios Orlando. (Just a few miles down the road from where I’m writing this post.) One of the producers is Leonardo DiCaprio who plays Rick Dalton in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. 

Here are some other posters from the race film The Green Eyed Monster that Norman produced that perhaps can serve as inspiration to Tarantino’s 10th and final film before he retires from feature filmmaking.

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P.S. Yes, I am aware that other places considered themselves “The Harlem of the South” so no need to write me about that.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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“The Hollywood we were driving to that fall of ‘63 was in limbo. The Old Hollywood was finished and the New Hollywood hadn’t started yet.”
Andy Warhol
Popism

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a strange mixtape (with alternative tracks) of the ups and downs of the movie industry. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino could have picked any era in the past 100 years and told a different version of the same story. Only the names change. He chose 1969 which was a memorable year in so many ways.

The movies True Grit and The Wild Bunch were the old guard and Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy were the new guard and they well represented the changes going on in Hollywood. And in the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the famous old west bank robbers are told,It’s over don’t you get that? Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is chose where.”

Tarantino wraps his fictitious story around the true events of the Mason cult killings in Los Angeles in the summer of ’69 that for many signaled the end of the peace and love hippy movement.

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.”
Joan Didion

But Tarantino actually made a buddy love story of sorts between fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) that is full of his high brow, low brow approach to filmmaking. Some of Tarantino’s favorite movies are male bonding stories (Big Wednesday, Fandango, Rio Bravo).

Burt Reynolds would have loved this movie as his influence on Tarantino is unmistakable. (Reynolds was originally cast in the movie but unfortunately died before the movie was shot.)

Reynolds was one of those actors that did what movies and television shows he could in the ’50s and ’60s until he was able to become a movie star in with release of Deliverance in 1972. (After becoming the biggest box office star in Hollywood for several years he would eventually have his own Rick Dalton moment of falling off the Hollywood radar. But he was able to bounce back an earn his sole Oscar nomination for his role in Boogie Nights.)

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“Navajo Joe” (1966) starring Burt Reynolds and directed by Sergio Corbucci

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Quentin Tarantino was named after the character Quint (Burt Renyolds on the right) from the classic Tv show Gunsmoke. Hal Needham performed the stunts for Reynolds on Gunsmoke.

“I’ll tell you one of the greatest moments I’ve had in these however many years we’ve been at it in this town: getting to spend two days with Burt Reynolds on this film.”
Brad Pitt (on doing table reads and spending time with Reynolds)
Esquire interview with Michael Hainey

Watch the 2016 documentary The Bandit centered around Reynolds and his stuntman (turned Smokey and the Bandit director) Hal Needham either before or after watching Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and it will only enhance your appreciation of Tarantino’s creative gift of making old things new.

This post isn’t a review of the movie but more what the movie stirred in me with the hopes that it will help provide you a roadmap wherever you are on your filmmaking journey.

Tarantino is two years younger than me and I imagine we have many of the same cultural references growing up; watching Batman, Kung Fu, The Lone Ranger, Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet reruns and old westerns and war movies on TV, and Billy Jack and Willard in theaters. Before learning to drive a whole generation was exposed to its share of fist fights and gun battles. As it’s been said—movies reflect the culture they help produce. Heck, that could be the theme of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood as one of the Manson family cult members says as much.

Inspired by many great films of the ’70s I found my way to Hollywood, California in 1981. If Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood captures the glorious fading light of old Hollywood, I found a decade later that the glory had all but departed. Seedy would be the best way to describe Hollywood at that time. I quickly landed a studio apartment in safe and quiet Burbank.

I finished film school at Columbia College Hollywood which at that time was on North La Brea which meant everyday I drove past Disney Studios, The Burbank Studios, and the back of Universal Studios as I made my way over the hill from the San Fernando Valley on Barham Blvd in Burbank to Cahuenga into Hollywood and usually down Sunset Blvd. or Hollywood Blvd., and past the studio that Charlie Chaplin built all in a 20 minute drive to school.

My first job while in school there was as a driver for BERC (Broadcast Equipment Rental Company) in Hollywood and that was my ticket to getting into NBC, CBS, and ABC studios delivering equipment. Other jobs led getting on the Paramount lot in Hollywood and Twentieth Century Fox in Culver City.

Back in the ’80s I bought books and scripts at Larry Edmonds Cinema and Theatre Bookshop, ate at The Musso & Frank Grill and the Formosa Cafe, saw movies at the Egyptian Theatre, the Cinerama Dome, and the Chinese Theatre, and went to concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, drove through Beverly Hills, rented equipment from Birns and Sawyer, and of course, walked many times down the Hollywood Walk of Fame. All things that you can still do today if you want to experience old Hollywood.

And if you really want to be trippy go see Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood at the Bruin Theatre in Westwood Village which is featured in the movie when Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) goes to see the movie she’s in (The Wrecking Crew).  And if you want to go full Tarantino you can go watch Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood again at the New Beverly Cinema owned by Tarantino.  (Which is just one block off La Brea and around the corner from Pink’s Hot Dogs and where I went to film school—because all things are connected in Tarantino’s universe.)

Here’s another odd connection. When I was a fresh out of film school 16mm camera operator/editor for Motivational Media I once shot an interview with Kirk Cameron at the lesser known Warner Bros. Ranch in Burbank which is 32 acres full of Hollywood history dating back to the 1930s. That shoot was in 1987 when Cameron was a teenager and one of the stars of the TV show Growing Pains. Also appearing in episodes of Growing Pains was not only an up and coming actor named Leonardo DiCaprio, but a then unknown actor named Brad Pitt.

While living in Burbank director Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) once walked in front of my car and at crosswalk by the Warner Bros. lot, I walked on the set on The Johnny Carson Show (thanks to a security guard on one of my deliveries), and I saw director John Huston (The Searchers) in a wheelchair outside of FotoKem a few months before he died in 1987. (Actually the same facility where some of the post-production work was done on Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.)

And one final touch of Hollywood history I experienced in Burbank was meeting Richard Farnsworth standing in line at a movie concession stand in the mid-’80s. He was best known then as an actor in The Grey Fox and The Natural, but he first spent 30 years as a Hollywood stuntman working on films like Red River, Gunga Din, Spartacus, Ben Hur and a whole bunch of TV westerns. (Farnsworth’s Oscar nomination for The Straight Story at age 79 and 167 days is still the record for the oldest Oscar nominee for Best Actor.)

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Because all things are connected in Quentin Tarantino’s world, notice that  the character Farnsworth plays just got released from San Quentin.

I think Farnsworth would have gotten a kick out of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. When I asked him if he was Richard Farnsworth he genuinely seemed pleased that I recognized him. I’m sure he saw plenty of Rick Dalton’s in his days—and probably felt like Rick Dalton when he was no longer needed to fall off a horse or drive a chariot.

P.S. Just last week I was watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid again and did a couple of screen grabs because I thought I could use them on a post about lighting. But Robert Redford and Paul Newman seem to fit in right here along side Pitt and DiCaprio.

“The theme [of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid] is times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade

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Related posts:
Tarantino Gumbo Soup Film School
Star Wars Vs. Smokey and the Bandit (Remembering Burt Reynolds)
Sacred Land, Moving Pictures (post ends with a clip from Billy Jack) 
Writing ‘Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid’
‘The way I wrote…’ —Tarantino

 

Scott W. Smith

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